From education to employment

Words of Advice for New Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson

Paul Eeles, Chief Executive of the Skills and Education Group and Chair of the Federation of Awarding Bodies

As the new Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, gets his feet under the table at the Department for Education, Paul Eeles, the chair of the Federation of Awarding Bodies shares his thoughts and gives some words of advice:

On behalf of the UK’s successful awarding and assessment industry, I’d like to welcome Gavin Williamson and his team to their new responsibilities.

Ministers have an unapparelled opportunity to continue the ambition of ensuring England’s system of technical and vocational education is genuinely world-class.

Of course, the Secretary of State won’t achieve such a goal unless he can persuade the Treasury to find the urgent investment needed to reverse the real terms cuts in FE since 2010.

We know from the recent Augar Review that these short-sighted decisions have had a really negative impact on improving social mobility and productivity.

When we meet with Ministers, there will be four key areas that we will be asking them to see as a priority, particularly as we work together on what is an important shared challenge:

1. Support a better regulated, market economy in qualifications UK-wide

One of the great strengths of the awarding and assessment industry is its focus on diversity, innovation and choice.

Learners can take advantage of qualifications and digital credentials that support them in life: to gain direct access to a job, or to progress into further education or training.

Our aims and objectives are in line with those of the regulators. We believe regulation should support the provision of high-quality, valid vocational qualifications and not present barriers which can get in the way of choice and innovation in the market place.

We need better coordination by the regulators in the UK to avoid burdening those that they regulate, especially through audit activity and diverging requirements.

Whilst the increasing devolution of regulation of vocational qualifications is understandable, it does place a major burden on awarding bodies, many of whom are charities, not for profit and/or small businesses.

In practice, this means less money directed to the front-line to help improve teaching and learning through, for example, better curriculum materials.

We would like to see the Secretary of State taking a more active interest in working with Ofqual; his ministerial colleagues in the devolved administrations; and regulators, to ensure we create a UK-wide ‘common rulebook’ of regulatory equivalence of qualifications, so that learners in future are not disadvantaged in the UK’s single market.

In England, the flagship reform of new T-Levels, which in principle we support, needs a fresh pair of eyes to look at the current delivery timelines.

The last thing the country needs is an implementation disaster in education, just because of an artificially driven and political set of timescales that the permanent secretary himself has previously warned about.

Indeed, we need to eradicate the risk of market failure in T-Levels. As we’ve argued previously, introducing monopoly licenses into the awarding market presents a high level of risk for learners and government and should not really be pursued.

There is simply no evidence to support the claims that the current arrangements have caused ‘a race to the bottom’.

You only have to look at the success of A-Levels to see that competition and collaboration of exam boards can work in the interests of students.

2. Make sure the various reviews of qualifications ensures continued choice for learners and colleges

In reviewing post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below it is essential that choice is maintained to ensure there is a funded qualification offer that meets the needs of a diverse range of learners.

Whatever principles are to be applied to qualifications to determine future eligibility for funding, consideration should be given to the benefits of providing an element of independence in the decision-making process.

Learners should have access to a range of high quality technical and vocational qualifications from an early age.

The government should consider the impact the Ebacc will have on the curriculum and the amount of time that will be available for learners to engage in subjects outside of the Ebacc requirements, whether these are other GCSE subjects or creative, artistic and technical subjects.

3. Sort out the quality assurance faults in apprenticeships

The government’s apprenticeship reforms have been sold to employers as being of world-class quality.

It is no exaggeration therefore, to say that efficient and effective external quality assurance (EQA), is going to be crucial to improvements in skills and productivity. Getting this part of the system right is absolutely mission critical. 

The Federation supports the requirement to have a robust EQA process that can provide confidence for apprentices, employers and the wider public that every apprentice has met the standard required of them. 

The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IFATE) has recently launched an EQA Common Framework.

As members of the institute’s Quality Alliance, we welcome this initiative as an important step towards achieving a consistent standard across the multiple EQA organisations.

Charges for EQA services which divert funds that should be used for the training of the apprentice should be removed.

Instead, quality needs to be seen as a public good and funded as a national infrastructure cost, similar to how Ofsted is funded to inspect the quality of training providers.

We believe only the statutory bodies should be involved in EQA.

4. Ensure stability and listen to the experts at the front line

The sector is crying out for future stability of the technical education and skills system.

The report by one of our members, the City and Guilds Sense and Instability report, clearly lays out much of this change; as does the recent CBI report In Perfect Harmony: Improving Skills Delivery in England; which highlights how these ‘frequent and disruptive changes have not effectively addressed genuine skills issues’.

Ministers do need to get out of the Westminster bubble and listen more to the qualifications and assessment experts.

As the trade association for technical and vocational awarding, FAB believes we have a constructive part to play on all the key stakeholder groups related to technical and vocational education across the UK.

That’s because we represent the vast majority of all regulated awarding bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We are the representative voice of End Point Assessment Organisations (EPAOs) in England, who collectively provide end point assessment for 69 per cent of the apprenticeship standards that currently have an EPAO assigned (as at June 2019).

In conclusion, our members look forward to working with the new ministerial team to make our country the best place in the world for good jobs and skills.

Paul Eeles, Chief Executive of the Skills and Education Group and Chair of the Federation of Awarding Bodies

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